Formative Assessment

Using Formative Assessment to Measure Student Progress

Teachers can use the feedback they gain from assessing to drive instructional outcomes and help students understand what success looks like.

April 4, 2024
Koivo / Ikon Images

Perhaps my favorite commentary on formative assessment is this analogy offered by education professor Dylan Wiliam: “I flew back from Seattle a few weeks ago. Just imagine what the pilot would have done if he would have flown east for nine hours and then after nine hours he’d say, ‘It’s time to land.’ So he’ll put the plane down and he’ll ask, ‘Is this London?’ And of course, even if it’s not London, he says, ‘Well, everybody’s gotta get off, because I have to get off to the next journey.’ And that’s exactly the way that we’ve assessed in the past.” 

Formative assessment, implemented correctly, is a continuous measure of student success throughout any unit of study. When we provide students with quick, real-time information about their progress, they gain valuable knowledge that transcends any grade. 

Ensure that grades accurately measure student performance 

Although many teachers would love to abandon grades from an ideological perspective, that is not usually possible given school or district constraints. When thinking about grading, teachers can become mired in details that distract from the overall purpose of formative assessment. For example, some education experts argue that assessments cannot be formative if any data is recorded in the grade book.

By placing too much emphasis on grades over performance, however, this perspective overlooks the most important benefits that formative assessment produces: the delivery of “no secrets” instruction that is aligned to transparent and equitable feedback. To that end, formative assessments can be graded, but with two provisos: 

  1. Any formative grade should not be weighted heavily enough to have a significant impact on overall success, and students must also have the opportunity to reassess their work and make improvements. Otherwise, the grade is summative, not formative.
  2. Formative grades must be a true reflection of student success toward a goal. If they are arbitrary or placed in the grade book for completion, the entire formative process is compromised. 

In essence, formative assessment supports the idea that process is more important than product; therefore, the ultimate goal is centered on learning, not a grade. Any grade that either is given as a formality or is not grounded in criteria for success cannot be formative.

Understand the purpose of formative assessment

As education writer Stephen Chappuis explains, formative assessment is designed to deliver information about student progress during instruction. Thinking back to Dylan Wiliam’s comparison of the assessment process to a flight plan, consider the difference between a classroom in which there is little to no transparency and one in which “no secrets” learning outcomes are clear to all. In Classroom A, students read a short article about why exercise is important. The teacher explains that their task is to read silently and then fill out short-answer responses to the questions.

After class, the teacher collects their work, checks that students have answered the questions, and enters a grade in the “completion” category. While the teacher may feel that she has done something to help students make progress, she has only provided an activity that is devoid of any opportunity for assessment. Therefore, she has no way of determining whether students reached a learning goal that was never explicitly communicated to them.

In Classroom B, the teacher has the same content and curricular focus, but her process is different as she begins by explicitly sharing the desired learning outcome: “Today, we will examine the reasons that exercise is considered beneficial.” To begin, students sit in groups to read an assigned section of the article about the importance of exercise. Then, using a jigsaw-style method, students move into different groups so that each member can teach the rest of their classmates about what they learned in their assigned portion. At the end of the class, students complete an exit ticket with the following prompts:

  1. Share the reasons listed in the article that exercise is important, writing a brief explanation for each reason (one or two sentences).
  2. Of the reasons given in the article about the importance of exercise, which one do you most agree with, and why? Fully explain your answer.

The teacher in Classroom B can determine, based on the answers on the exit ticket, how fully students understood the objective of the day and develop next steps that accurately reflect progress toward learning outcomes.

Clearly, the teacher in Classroom B is engaging in formative assessment that provides insight into where her students are in terms of their learning. When instruction is planned with the outcome at the forefront of focus, formative data is far more likely to reflect accurate measures of success. However, when students complete tasks for a grade that does not connect to any kind of specific target, there is no way to determine where they stand in relation to the goal.

Remember that feedback, not grades, should drive instruction

Teachers often call grades “feedback,” but the truth is that an evaluative measure like a numerical score does not tell students that much about their progress toward a skill or standard, nor does a letter grade. However, effective feedback protocols based on clear, student-friendly criteria demystify how success on any given assignment is defined. 

Going back to the kids in Classroom B who are learning about the importance of exercise, imagine that their formative assessment (in this case, an exit ticket) includes the following criteria for success:

  1. You have accurately summarized the ideas in the article about the importance of exercise.
  2. Your response fully answers both questions in complete sentences.
  3. You have provided details that help to explain what reasons for exercise are the most meaningful to you.

If students have this list before they complete the formative assessment, they fully understand what a successful product should incorporate. Then, the teacher can point out where they are not yet seeing success in the feedback with comments like “You have not yet mentioned your own reasons that exercise is important, which is a necessary step in showing that you can apply the concepts in this article to your own experience.” 

With a process like the one above, the formative assessment is easily streamlined, as the teacher directly indicates which criteria have been met and which need improvement. For example, sorting students into categories of “meets” and “not yet” provides a helpful snapshot of where the class generally stands with reaching academic goals.

Ultimately, the goal of formative assessment is for teachers to clearly indicate a leaning target so that students can accurately attribute their academic performance to clear criteria for success with aligned, streamlined feedback. This helps us meet our true goal: helping kids understand what makes them successful so they can continue to grow and thrive.

What about your thoughts on the role of grades in formative assessment—do you use them? Why or why not? Answer in the comments.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Formative Assessment

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.